Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Review: The Night Is a Mouth, by Lisa Foad

There was a fair bit of hype surrounding this book when it first came out, but it was my belated reading of Lisa Foad’s short story “Lost Dogs” in an issue of Exile: The Literary Quarterly that convinced me I should pick up this short story collection. (Oddly, that particular publication credit is absent from the book’s acknowledgements page. An oversight?) “Lost Dogs” tells a horrifying story of a young girl on the lam in search of the mother who abandoned her, and the brutal hardships and sexual abuse she suffers in the process. What makes the piece so powerful, beyond Foad’s sparse language and elliptical storytelling style, is the fact that it couples the girl’s sexual exploitation with her sexual awakening. This lends a intriguingly complicated dimension to her victimization, and Foad navigates us through this with pitch-perfect sentences and a descriptive prowess all her own.

Make no mistake that The Night Is a Mouth is a raw and powerful collection of short fiction. The same fierce writing style and nervy subject matter in “Lost Dogs” is evident in the other nine stories. There are girls in dubious relationships with each other, children raging against their parents’ general uselessness, and lots of sexually charged scenes. The general approach here is urban cool and evasive, tightly written dialogue, strong, sexually aware women, and occasional flights into the surreal. Foad holds it all together with a relentless commitment to the voice she’s achieved for the collection as a whole.

Having said all that, I did feel somewhat disappointed with The Night Is a Mouth by the time I reached the last page. Part of the problem is that I felt Foad was a bit too committed to the voice, style and subject matter of her stories. I understand that it’s these things that are meant to hold this collection together, and yet I longed for a bit more versatility in Foad’s performance: a character who falls outside the established mould, a refreshing interlude of realism, a moment of straight-up emotion instead of icy ellipticisms. True, Foad has mastered something in this collection and does it so incredibly well, but it’s still only one thing – an approach she’s skillfully cornered and then replicated across 10 stories. This gives The Night Is a Mouth a bit of a one-trick-pony sort of feel. It would have been better to see more modulation in the book’s tone and subject matter, to show that Foad is capable of seeing her characters and the world they inhabit beyond the narrow (albeit original and unnerving) prism she dangles over her authorial eye.

Despite my final dissatisfaction with the book, I still feel it worthy of the praise it’s received, and I do recommend it. Foad holds her own with other young writers taking the short story in exciting new directions. I look forward to seeing whatever she produces next.

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